When you park downtown in Durham on a warm Saturday afternoon and sit in your car soaking up rays and listening to Casey Kasem on satellite radio playing the top 40 songs from 1972 - as I did several months ago - you anticipate being approached by someone with a hard-luck story looking for some scratch.
That’s why I always carry some because hey, that could be you or me one day going "Say, Mister. Got any spare change?"
It’s also why I wasn’t surprised when I saw a dude accosting people on the sidewalk as he walked in the direction of my truck. Unlike most people you see hummin’ and bummin’, though, this particular fellow had a bounce in his step and a smile on his face as he stopped and amiably chatted with passersby.
It was, finally, my turn.
As he walked over and introduced himself as Larry, I preemptively reached for my wallet.
“No, no, man. I’m not asking for anything,” he said.
Now, that was an unusual approach to asking for moolah.
Downtown Durham has had some innovative panhandlers over the years, guys whose stories are so creative you’d hook them up just for the stories they’d tell. Remember the legendary dude who used to walk around with a broken fan belt that he said he was trying to replace so his stranded family and he could get their car back on the road?
After the third or fourth time, the third or fourth month, you began to wonder “Hey, is there really a car? A family? Is that even a fan belt?”
Then, there was the guy who patrolled downtown with his woman, who held a “baby” swaddled in a blanket. I said “baby” because, despite several encounters, I never saw it move, never heard it make a sound. Their car, coincidentally, had also broken down and left them stranded in downtown Durham, and he wondered as he wandered, if you could help them with some - you guessed it - spare change.
Just like the panhandling couple in Bobby Womack’s song Harry Hippie, they
“could lie down a story so incredible
Man, you want to help her take the food home
and put it on the table.”
I’m guessing that most people who rewarded them did so for their creativity, for at least using a prop, even though their stories lacked credibility.
No one had ever, though, as far as I could recall, begun his pitch by saying he wasn’t asking for money.
Turns out, Larry wasn’t.
What he was doing, though, was telling everyone he encountered that he had been drug-free for three months. I was intrigued, so I engaged him in conversation for a good 15 minutes – rapt as he talked about his heroin addiction, how he’d gotten clean in a drug rehab facility, what his future held. Larry, who appeared to be in his mid-30s, refused my offer to help him get a motel room for the night, saying he was spending his nights comfortably under the Farmer’s Market shed on Foster Street a block away.
He eventually wandered away, and through my sideview mirror I saw he was still spreading his good news to people he met. Most people, surprisingly, stopped and actually engaged with him.
A month or so later, I was again parked downtown, this time waiting to pick up some vittles from a restaurant. Larry recognized my truck and came over. This time he did put the bite on me, but specifically only for $5. You see, he said, he had gotten a job that was fixing to take a group of men to Charlotte to do some kind of work upon which he didn’t elaborate. He gave me the number to his new cell phone, and we talked a couple of times.
The last time I saw Larry, he looked as though he’d stepped into a way-back machine and shed 10 years and some dirty clothes. He was still working, he said proudly, had an apartment – although his roommate and he weren’t "vibing" and he was looking for another spot – and was still drug-free.
I thought of him recently and dialed his number – he’s listed in my phone as “Larry, the dude who was NOT humming and bumming on the street” – but the person who answered said I had the wrong number.
I hope he’s okay and still drug-free.